Mere words can't erase those images

Sun Staff

Image accomplished. The mission may be awaiting final resolution, but the Iraq War has now delivered what could become its signature image, a Kodak Moment of creepiness that shows a hooded Iraqi seemingly wired for electro-torture by American military guards at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.

President George W. Bush has done Arab-television interviews, and his administration has issued multiple apologies. But the visual impression has already been stamped on the world's collective consciousness.

"One of the things you learn in this business," says Bobby Mueller, head of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation and an ex-Marine left paralyzed from the waist down by wounds suffered in that conflict, "is that image counts so much more than words. People do things because of how they feel, not how they think."

The photo of the lone, backlit figure - precariously perched on a box, arms extended with open palms as if bestowing a blessing - almost seems to be mimicking the giant statue of Jesus that commands a mountaintop overlooking Rio de Janeiro.

But it also has darker connotations: Dickens' spooky ghost of Christmas Future ... a shadowy Ku Klux Klansman ... the Grim Reaper.

That hooded figure is one of 14 pictures that have come to light so far. Most of the rest are X-rated. They feature naked Iraqi prisoners in various stages of degradation, some stacked like blocks to form perverse human pyramids, others forced to perform choreographed sex acts.

One battered and bruised detainee obviously suffered garden-variety brutality: He allegedly was simply beaten to death.

In many of the photos Army Reserve men and women assigned to the 372nd Military Police Company can be seen mugging for the camera, flashing big grins and triumphant thumbs-up.

Oddly, no news photographer surreptitiously shot the damning evidence. Guards turned the cameras on themselves, then, apparently, made no serious attempt to keep a lid on their photographs. Some eventually fell into the hands of a superior officer, and ultimately the world.

"Something fundamentally has changed," says Donald Winslow, publications editor of the National Press Photographers Association, referring to the proliferation of non-professional images in today's culture and how quickly they can make their way into the mainstream media. Blame the self-publishing ethos of the Internet and advances in photo technology.

"Most of the soldiers over there now have some little digital 'happy snap' or video camera," adds Winslow. "They're taking pictures."

It's worth noting that the two most compelling batches of Iraq War photos to surface in recent weeks - the Abu Ghraib abuses and those rows of flag-draped coffins being shipped home from the battlefield - were both taken by amateurs.

The Bush administration blocked access to the locations of coffins being returned stateside and has tried to control most images coming out of Iraq. That's proved futile in an age of cell phone cameras and the wireless Internet.

Part of what was at work here was the dark side of what Abraham Lincoln liked to call the "better angels of our nature." There is a long, though not necessarily proud, history of war trophies. Experience shows survival in combat typically involves dehumanizing one's adversaries, in reveling in their defeat if not showing outright contempt for their very existence.

On the benign end of that spectrum, a GI poses for a picture in front of Hitler's burned-out bunker. At the other extreme, he might take obscene

liberties with a prisoner. In medieval times the severed heads of those who lost favor with the British throne were regularly displayed in public places, including London Bridge. (Oliver Cromwell's poor skull was left hanging on a pole in Westminster Hall for 27 years.)

Americans, alas, are not immune to macabre impulses. According to U.S. Army records, when the remains of Japanese soldiers killed in the Mariana Islands were repatriated in 1984, some 60 percent of the corpses were headless.

American credibility took a hit with the photographs from Abu Ghraib.

"What the Bush administration is up against is that the United States is held to a much higher standard than any country," says Bruce Cumings, a history professor at the University of Chicago and author of War and Television, "much less Saddam Hussein's regime."

There was a disturbing amateur-hour quality to the images, fostering an impression of an army that's gone gallumphing, not marching, off to war.

Mueller was wary of this mission from the beginning. He sees the parallels to Vietnam becoming more pronounced with each passing month - this time, the battle is for Iraqi hearts and minds.

But there's no way to retouch those photos from Abu Ghraib.

"In the court of public opinion," Mueller says glumly, "we've already lost."

Sun staff writer Arthur Hirsch contributed to this article.

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